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Thumbnail of Richard Hamming (source)
Richard Hamming
(11 Feb 1915 - 7 Jan 1998)

American computer scientist and mathematician who invented Hamming codes - computer error-detecting and correcting codes.


Richard Hamming - “Engineering is concerned with choosing, from among the many possible ways”

Illustrated Quote - Large (800 x 600 px)

“Science is concerned with what is possible while engineering is concerned with choosing, from among the many possible ways, one that meets a number of often poorly stated economic and practical objectives.”
— Richard Hamming
Turing Award Lecture (1968)

More Richard Hamming quotes on science >>

Context of Richard Hamming's quote, “Engineering is concerned with choosing...”

In 1968, Richard Hamming was invited to give the Turing Lecture to the Association for Computing Machinery, which he titled, “One Man's View of Computer Science.” At the time, he worked at Bell Telephone Laboratories, and was not an academic. Thus, he would more naturally see the role of computer science in terms of its useful applications, and his concern was that students coming into the field have a preparation for practicality. Accordingly, his lecture addressed his ideas for improved planning of any computer science curriculum.

Hamming introduced the quote shown above, saying it would serve as an example of making distinctions, and it was offered casually, as an arbitrary example. He then applied it to the subject of his lecture:

“We call the field ‘computer science’ but I believe that it would be more accurately labeled ‘computer engineering’ were not this too likely to be misunderstood. So much of what we do is not a question of can it be done as it is a question of finding a practical way. It is not usually a question of can there exist a monitor system, algorithm, scheduler, or compiler, rather it is a question of finding a practical working one with a reasonable expenditure of time and effort. While I would not change the name from ‘computer science’ to ‘computer engineering,’ I would like to see far more of a practical, engineering flavor in what we teach than I usually find in course outlines.”

In a number of observations and comments, he advocated that more engineering flavour be given to computer science. He made the point that instead of looking at difficulties in this field in terms of theoretical questions of whether certain things could be done, rather the practical questions should be answered as to how they can be accomplished well and simply. He suggested including a laboratory course in programming and adding a requirement for a strong minor in something other than mathematics. Overall, he gave his opinion that there should be more practical coding and less abstract theory, more seriousness and less game playing. Furthermore, the three topics of ethics, professional behaviour and social responsibility should be taught “constantly, all the time, by everyone,” communicated by professors who integrated conveying these values throughout their instruction, and by their own behaviour.

Hamming concluded with this remark:

We are not engaged in turning out technicians, idiot savants, and computniks; we know that in this modern, complex world we must turn out people who can play responsible major roles in our changing society, or else we must acknowledge that we have failed in our duty as teachers and leaders in this exciting, important field—computer science.

Text by Webmaster, with reference to the lecture as printed in Journal of the Association for Computing Machinery (Jan 1969), 16, No. 1, 3-12. The quote appears on p.5. (source)


See also:
  • Science Quotes by Richard Hamming.
  • 11 Feb - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Hamming's birth.
  • Richard Hamming - context of quote “Engineering is concerned with choosing, from among the many possible ways” - Medium image (500 x 350 px)
  • Richard Hamming - context of quote “Mathematics is an interesting intellectual sport” - Medium image (500 x 350 px)
  • Richard Hamming - context of quote “Mathematics is an interesting intellectual sport” - Large image (800 x 600 px)

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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